Big Break Records is letting the love come through – Universal Love, that is! – with its new reissue of the third album from Philadelphia International Records’ inimitable house band, MFSB. The only mystery about the 1975 album is how this No. 2 R&B smash (and respectable No. 44 Pop success, as well) has avoided compact disc release after all these years. Happily, it follows 1972’s MFSB and 1973’s Love is the Message into Big Break’s catalogue in a newly-expanded and remastered edition.
The talented, versatile musicians at the core of the original MFSB, including guitarists Bobby Eli and Norman Harris, vibraphonist Vince Montana, Jr., percussionist Larry Washington, drummer Earl Young, bassist Ron Baker and others, could play thrillingly in any style without ever losing their effortlessly elegant and deeply funky sound. With producer-arranger Bobby Martin primarily at the helm, Universal Love melded symphonic soul and disco as only MFSB could.
The Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff-written opening instrumental, “Sexy,” more than lives up to its name. One of three tracks co-written and produced by Gamble and Huff for Universal Love, its inviting, introductory guitar riff is anchor to the full-on swell of the entire orchestra as orchestrated by Martin. The track vividly showcases the glistening strings, powerfully charged horns (including Zach Zachary’s standout saxophone riff) and infectious dance rhythms that gave The Sound of Philadelphia its shine. Gamble and Huff also wrote the grandly cascading “MFSB” which echoes 1972’s landmark “TSOP” with its dynamic, driving groove and rich instrumentation. Like the earlier song, “MFSB” could only be the work of the titular orchestra.
Sans Gamble, Leon Huff composed two songs on Universal Love. His “Human Machine,” co-written with Ron Baker, fuses chunky rhythms, insinuating string lines and crisp electric licks. It underscores MFSB’s ability to bring melodic accessibility even to its funkiest cuts. “Let’s Go Disco” boasted an all-star songwriting line-up, with Huff joined by the team of Gene McFadden and John Whitehead (“Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”) as well as Victor Carstarphen (“Wake Up Everybody”) and Cary Gilbert (“Me and Mrs. Jones”). Ironically, “Let’s Go Disco” is an atypical cut, with its primitive chanting and bold, blunt beats. Despite the title, it’s far from the most conducive track for dancing! Martin’s arrangement of “K-Jee,” however, makes up for it! Originally recorded by Kentucky group The Nite-Liters, it may be the most famous track on Universal Love thanks to its inclusion on the record-breaking soundtrack to 1977’s Saturday Night Fever.
Producer Bruce Hawes and arranger (and MFSB flautist) Jack Faith take the reins for just one track. “Love Has No Time or Place,” written by Hawes with Cynthia Biggs, has a sultry and futuristic vibe that complements “Human Machine.” Yvette Davis and Shirley Brewer of Wonderlove add a distinctive flavor as members of the song’s vocal quartet. Faith’s work as an arranger seamlessly blended in with Martin’s, and in the best jazz-informed style, allowed for spotlight turns and solos including for his own flute. (The members of MFSB were no strangers to the jazz idiom; one shouldn’t hesitate to seek out BBR’s reissue of bassist Monk Montgomery’s lone album for Philadelphia International, Reality. It, too, has Bobby Martin as producer, arranger and writer.)
Martin teamed with guitarist Norman Harris to pen “T.L.C. (Tender Loving Care).” Distinguished by its brief ballad introduction, its soaring strings mesh with smooth sax and funky percussion. Like “MFSB,” “T.L.C.” has a relaxed, irresistible swagger. Gamble and Huff’s “My Mood” closes Universal Love on a sweet and soft note on which to chill out, with the album’s lone spotlight on Vince Montana’s cool vibes.
Four single versions round out this first-ever expanded edition of Universal Love including “Sexy” (which nearly made the top of the R&B chart at No. 2 and barely missed cracking the Pop Top 40 at No. 42) and “T.L.C. (Tender Loving Care).” The short promotional version of “Let’s Go Disco” is also included as is the belatedly-released single of “K-Jee.” Both tracks made the Top 5 of the Disco chart. Produced by BBR’s Wayne A. Dickson, the reissue is housed in a deluxe Super Jewel Box and boasts a full-color 16-page booklet amply illustrated with various single sleeves, labels, and the original artwork. Christian John Wikane supplies the detailed liner notes in which he deftly puts the album into historical perspective and offers commentary on each track. Topping off this superb presentation, Nick Robbins has given Universal Love a fresh remaster.
This unparalleled group of musicians would only be responsible for two more MFSB albums (Philadelphia Freedom and Summertime). By the end of 1975, many core members – including Baker, Harris, Young and Montana – had left Philadelphia International for Salsoul Records where they would play as part of The Salsoul Orchestra with Montana as leader. (The Salsoul Orchestra’s albums have also been splendidly reissued by BBR, and are a must-have complement to the MFSB discography.) Universal Love captures the members of MFSB Mk. I at the height of their considerable powers, making inspiring, happy, and yes, “Sexy” grooves. All you need is Love!
Watch this space soon for more information on BBR’s other recent titles from Ashford and Simpson and more!
- Human Machine
- Love Has No Time or Place
- T.L.C. (Tender Loving Care)
- Let’s Go Disco
- My Mood
- Sexy (Single Version) (Philadelphia International single ZS8 3567, 1975)
- T.L.C. (Tender Loving Care) (Single Version) (Philadelphia International single ZS8 3576, 1975)
- Let’s Go Disco (Promotional Single Version) (Philadelphia International S PIR 3635 (U.K.), 1975)
- K-Jee (Single Version) (Philadelphia International single ZS8 3641, 1978)